Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "The Austen Escape" by Katherine Reay, Served with a Recipe for "Black Butter" (Apple-Blackberry Preserves) from The Jane Austen Cookbook

Welcome to Tuesday. A good day because it puts us one day closer to Friday. If you are feeling the need to escape, you aren't alone. Whenever I need to get away, at least in my mind, I open up a good book like this week's stop on the TLC Book Tour--The Austen Project by Katherine Reay. A fun but thoughtful novel that takes place at a Jane Austen experience in a house in Bath, England. Accompanying my review is a treat children might have enjoyed back in Austen's Day, "Black Butter"--a tasty jam-like mix of apples and blackberry on toast with butter.  

Publisher's Blurb:

Falling into the past will change their futures forever.

Mary Davies finds safety in her ordered and productive life. Working as an engineer, she genuinely enjoys her job and her colleagues – particularly a certain adorable and intelligent consultant. But something is missing. When Mary’s estranged childhood friend, Isabel Dwyer offers her a two-week stay in a gorgeous manor house in England, she reluctantly agrees in hopes that the holiday will shake up her quiet life in just the right ways.

But Mary gets more than she bargained for when Isabel loses her memory and fully believes she lives in Jane Austen’s Bath. While Isabel rests and delights in the leisure of a Regency lady, attended by the other costume-clad guests, Mary uncovers startling truths about their shared past, who Isabel was, who she seems to be, and the man who now stands between them.

Outings are undertaken, misunderstandings play out, and dancing ensues as this company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation, work out their lives and hearts.

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (November 7, 2017)

My Review:

Being a huge Jane Austen fan and quickly becoming a Kathleen Reay fan (this is the third of her books I've read), I was excited to read The Austen Escape and snagged the ARC on NetGalley and reading it before even learning about the TLC Book Tour. Since that was a couple of months ago, I reread the novel to refresh the story (and the food) in my mind and I think I liked it even better the second time around. 

I go back and forth on whether a Jane Austen 'escape'--like the one in the book (where groups of people spend time living in the Regency period and pretending to be characterless from Austen's works) is a dream vacation or my worst nightmare. I would love to visit Austen's stomping grounds and see the museums, houses and countryside where some of my favorite characters interacted but I have never been much of a costume person--Halloween makes me twitchy--so I don't know that I'd readily enjoy that part. Mary Davies, the main character of The Austen Escape has some similar feelings and wouldn't be going if her father hadn't convinced her that her friend Isabel needed her, and if Mary hadn't needed a handy escape from a failed project and a censuring new boss at work--her usual happy place. That there is some baggage with Mary and Isabel's friendship is readily apparent--and when Isabel forgets who she is and settles right into the pretending, Mary learns some hard truths about their friendship. 

I liked Mary from the start, she is smart and has some good snark--something I always appreciate. She leans to the ordered and routine side of things so the changes to her life have her feeling out of her element. Isabel was harder to like. Although I warmed to her more and sympathized with her as her story and childhood were unveiled, there is a betrayal that I don't think I would be able to get over if I were Mary--not to mention the way she treated Mary even before things are revealed. Reay does a great job of setting the atmosphere of Braithwaite House and of Bath and of what a Jane Austen-themed house party would be like. For me the descriptions added a lot to the story and from a slower start, things really took off after Mary and Isabel got to England. The supporting characters are fun and there is romance, of course--it's chick-lit--but it is clean chick-lit so things are kept light. 
An overall sweet and entertaining read that is a great escape itself--perfect to enjoy over a 'cuppa' and a few biscuits (or maybe some toast and jam or 'black butter'). If you don't enjoy or know your Austen at least a little (there is a handy Austen character overview in the front of the book to help), The Austen Escape won't have the same charm and probably isn't your book--but if like me, you are a Jane Austen lover, you will likely enjoy the fun.


Author Notes: Katherine Reay has enjoyed a life-long affair with the works of Jane Austen and her contemporaries—who provide constant inspiration both for writing and for life. She is the author of three previous novels, and her debut, Dear Mr. Knightley, was a 2014 Christy Award Finalist, winner of the 2014 INSPY Award for Best Debut, and winner of two Carol Awards for Best Debut and Best Contemporary. Katherine holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University and is a wife, mother, runner, and tae kwon do black belt. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine and her family recently moved back to Chicago. 

Visit her on line at katherinereay.com, or on Facebook or Twitter 


Food Inspiration:

This is not the "foodiest" of Reay's books (for that check out my review of Lizzy & Jane here) but there was food to be found in The Austen Escape. Examples include: Starbucks beverages, Chiles Rellenos, ice cream, tres leches cake, a martini with cilantro flakes, Prosecco, random casseroles, a Red Velvet cupcake, trout, takeout,warm nuts and chocolate in First Class, tea sandwiches and slices of glazed orange cake, toast spread with country pâté, cheese, cheese puffs, champagne, an dinner of endive salad, a light fish course, and beef tenderloin with lemon tart, coffee, tea, and other small desserts, burgers, popcorn, roast chicken, eggs, sausages, salsa on eggs and s'mores with burned marshmallows, a tray of cheese, cucumbers and a variety of cold meats along with a nineteenth-century version of egg mayonnaise and sticky toffee pudding for dessert, a salad of greens and pears, macaroni and cheese, pizza, hot cocoa, petit fours, soup, crumpets, scones, and ale, Celeriac Soup with Roast Hazelnuts and Hazelnut Oil, Smoked Salmon with Pommery Mustard and Dill Mayonnaise, Posh Kabob Wrap with Autumn Slaw and Yogurt, and a Maximum Burger with two patties and a fried egg, biscuits, Tamarind Jarritos, steaks, potatoes, and Caesar Salad, jars of jam, and nachos.

There was a mix of Austin Texas and Bath, England foods and some things that would have been enjoyed back in Jane Austen's day to pick from and I decided to pull out The Jane Austen Cookbook and see if anything called to me. I have cooked from this book before, making versions of the Raspberry 'Vinegar' (Cordial) and Marmalett of Aprecoks to pair with the film version of The Jane Austen Book Club so it seemed a good place to start. I am a bit limited in what I can make from this book as I don't eat meat (and too bad because don't Forcemeat Balls sound delicious?!) ;-) so I perused the fruit and dessert sections and decided on Black Butter--which basically turned out to be a preserve of apples (for their natural pectin) and assorted fruits and berries with the authors suggesting the black in the black butter may have come from a pairing of blackberries with the apples. Online it is called "a somewhat dark fruit conserve" which may also be how it gets its name. I happened to have some Honeycrisp (my favorite) apples on the counter and a bag of frozen blackberries, and with the mention of jam in the book (and given my love for the stuff), it seemed like a good pairing.

"My old piano teacher sent me three jars of jam every August. The day they arrived always felt like my birthday, and I practically licked each jar clean--all the while pushing aside, and yet cosseting, that little nudge, that pinprick, of the something lost that they evoked."

It was always the music. I could now name it and enjoy it. After my dinner with Dad I'd driven home and pulled my Lanvin shoebox from the top of my closet. I had also pulled the last jam jar from the fridge, sat on the floor, and thrashed a spoon around its farthest edges. It was delicious."

From The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black & Deidre Le Faye

The book notes that: "In one of Jane's letters we find references to "black butter" (perhaps blackberry and apple) being eaten by her family as a treat. We do not have a printed source for that recipe, but we do have one written only twelve years after Jane died for a children's dish. It comes from Meg Dodd's cookbook, originally published in 1829, and is given below

Black Butter
(For Children, a Cheap Preserve)
Pick currents, gooseberries, strawberries, or whatever fruit you have: to every two pounds of fruit, put one of sugar and boil till a good deal reduced. 
(M.D. 1829 edn, fac. 1988, page 435.)


For a modern recipe a mixture of some or all of the above fruits can be used. For each 2lb/1kg fruit, allow 1lb/450g white sugar. De-stalk and rinse the fruits, making sure none is mouldy. Mix them and heat gently in a pan until the juices start to run. Stir in the sugar until dissolved, and boil until very thick. Pour into small ht jars and cover as for jam. 

Note: This is a lovely old country preserve, almost unaltered, but shaped by the wise hand of Mary Norwalk. She says it is ideal for using up the odd bits and pieces in the freezer.

Deb's Notes: I made a couple of small changes--first I used about 1 lb (4 large) honey crisp apples and a 1 lb bag of frozen blackberries, which I defrosted and heated until juicy, added one large cinnamon stick and 1 Tbsp lemon juice and cooked over low for about 30 minutes to soften the fruit and release the juices. I broke up some of the larger pieces with a spoon, then brought the mixture to a boil and stirred in about 1/2 cup of sugar. (I didn't want it over sweet), boiled until the sugar was dissolved, then simmered for about 90 minutes until the mixture was reduced and quite thick. I scooped in into a small jar and allowed it to cool before serving on toast, spread with butter.

Notes/Results: A sweet and slightly tart jam with a pretty black-purple color. Even reducing to 1/2 cup sugar, it's a bit sweet for me. Thankfully the lemon juice and cinnamon stick help curb it slightly. I imagine a child would be in high-heaven with the sweetness, although they may object to the seeds from the blackberries. This definitely is more the texture of jam or preserves than butter, but you could blend it with an immersion blender if you wanted it smoother. I tend to prefer my jams and preserves to be chunky. I suppose in Jane's day they would have sieved it if they wanted a smoother consistency but that is far too much work for my laziness. It was quite delicious on a sourdough-style bread with a bit of (salted) butter and a cup of English Breakfast tea. I would make it again--although probably less sweet for me. 

I'm sharing this post with the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.

Note: A review copy of "The Austen Escape" was provided to me by the author and the publisher via TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.



  1. Nice looking jam! I've been watching some old movies of Jane Austen's books -- generally prefer the original or a movie based on the original to the many spin-offs.

    best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

  2. I have the Jane Austen Cookbook too but have never made anything from it. The black butter looks yummy. The Austen Escape sounds like a good winter read. Thanks for the review!

  3. My mother in law is 92 and she is notorious for her simple jams that she makes from any kind of berry. Her recipe looks similar.

  4. That black butter looks so good!

  5. I am definitely a Jane Austen fan, but like you I don't know whether an Austen escape would be a good thing or a bad thing. LOL

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  6. I love books that expand upon the Classics. I look forward to reading this author (I think I might start with her first book in the series). And I like the idea of pairing food with a current read. One more way to immerse myself into the story.

  7. Your black butter looks delicious and this book looks like a nice, light read.

  8. This sounds great. And I'm loving this week's literary posts! (I was traveling last week and have just found time to visit my visitors!)


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